2022 Hot New Things: Ashleigh Sun, AUT
Each summer DA profiles a selection of the top design graduates coming out of our tertiary institutions. We welcome these talented emerging professionals to our industry, learn about their passions, final projects, developing creative confidence and ambitions for the future.
In this article we talk with Ashleigh Sun, from AUT. You can find out more about Aotearoa NZ creative study options by visiting our design schools page.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I’ve always had a tough time answering this question, mostly because I never really knew where to start. I suppose if I started from the beginning, I’d say I was born and raised in New Zealand with my twin and older sister, I have roots in China, and I’ve had a brief encounter with Canada for a few years… but that seems a bit unoriginal. Truth be told, I’m still trying to figure out who I am and what I’m meant to do.
Being a fresh graduate has certainly kickstarted a new era of self-discovery, and right now, I want to tentatively describe myself as a ‘generalist’. While I have strengths and key interests in certain areas of design, I still love to keep things alive and interesting by playing my hand in several different areas – type design, publication design, general graphic design, sometimes illustration, and a bit of motion graphics here and there.
Outside of design, I’m quite keen on the guitar, calligraphy, art history, going outdoors, and I’ve recently just taken up swimming.
What did your graduating project focus on?
Ever since I had access to a computer, I’ve been obsessed with typefaces – I loved the infamous Comic Sans as a 6-year-old, I became a frequent user of dafont.com as a teen, and I even tried making my own handwriting into a typeface when I was 13. So it doesn’t come as a surprise that my graduating project involved type design as its primary focus. My project, Brücke Display, is a fusion of my interest in type and my fascination with art history. I used the open brief as an opportunity to delve into the twentieth century art movement, German Expressionism – whose artists embraced the woodcut medium – to create a typeface reminiscent of the works by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Taking direct inspiration from the typographic woodcut manifesto of the artist collective, Die Brücke (The Bridge), I translated the original hand-cut letterforms into a digital functional typeface, showcasing its qualities in a type specimen book alongside ten large-format posters. You can read more about it on the AUT AD21 Graduate Exhibition website.
Why did you choose to study at AUT?
I did my fair share of research before deciding to study at AUT and even had fleeting thoughts about going overseas. I looked into almost all the major design schools in New Zealand and went to a couple of open days but, in the end, AUT seemed like the obvious place to go. I was mostly drawn to the studio space and facilities on offer, and it certainly helped that I landed a scholarship.
What did you enjoy most about your course, or what do you feel you can take away now that you’ve completed it?
I was one of those people who was on campus during all hours of the day every day (although that might be a slight exaggeration…), so it was the people and the environment I enjoyed most. There was definitely a sense of camaraderie – and hilarity – when you’d be working in a studio at 10pm and you see someone else doing the exact same thing. During the day, however, the opportunity to see, interact with, and surround myself with talented like-minded individuals on a day-to-day basis was inspiring and motivating to say the least. It wasn’t the same when lockdown struck, but in any case, everyone has been so wonderful and supportive, and there’s always at least one person cheering you on.
Now that I’ve completed my course, I’ve been feeling bittersweet. Bitter because it’s all over now, and sweet because there are so many few things that I feel I can take away from this three-year journey. I’ve made lifelong friendships and connections, I’ve grown both personally and professionally, I’ve learned more than I ever thought I would, and I’ve developed a body of work that I’m proud of. Suffice to say, I’ve had such a fulfilling experience, and it’s been an absolute pleasure to work alongside the students, tutors, and community at AUT.
Were there any exciting or unexpected discoveries to come out of your studies?
What came as a surprise to me a little while ago was discovering that my work seems to have a certain ‘look’ about it. It’s not something I ever noticed, or even intended, until a few of my peers alluded to it when I showed them my work. They said something along the lines of, “it looks very ‘Ashleigh’”. Obviously, I didn’t believe them.
What was your biggest challenge while studying and how did you overcome it?
The obvious answer would be navigating multiple lockdowns in my last two years of study – and that’s completely true – but I’ve also struggled a lot with self-doubt and imposter syndrome. It’s difficult to feel like your work measures up against other people’s when you’ve been staring at it for too long, and then you see them creating something super amazing. I’m still in the process of overcoming this, but what has definitely helped has been focusing on how I can improve upon my work rather than fixating on how much better everyone else seems to be. I also surround myself with some wonderfully supportive people. I have this one friend who has stuck by me since I was barely a teen, and she’s always reminding me that I’m being too hard on myself and that I shouldn’t doubt my abilities as a designer. Needless to say, I’m incredibly grateful for her friendship and reassurance.
What’s the most valuable lesson you learned during your studies?
Cut your losses if you’re being too ambitious. More often than not, my projects have started out with the ambition of an unrealistically large set of design collateral. I’ve had to ask myself more times than I can count, “how much work can I realistically get done within this timeframe?” and if I really know myself, it’s not as much as I initially thought. Chances are, it’s better to make a few things (or even just one thing) really great rather than a lot of things mediocre. Plus, it’s really not worth the burn-out.
I’d also say, the learning never stops. I came into AUT with incredibly limited knowledge about design, but, after three years, I’ve come out having learned so much and I’ve still got the rest of my life ahead of me to learn even more. Over the course of my studies, I’ve realised that no matter how much I know, there will always be something I don’t know. There is a wealth of information out there and the world is constantly evolving, so I welcome any opportunity to grow and expand my arsenal of knowledge and skills.
How has your ability and confidence progressed since the beginning of your studies?
It’s quite interesting because I hadn’t realised how much I’ve progressed until I reflected on the past few years and looked back at some of my old work. My technical skills have grown exponentially, my workflow has gotten a lot faster, my design outputs get more refined with every new project, and my typography has notably improved. I also became acquainted with type design over the past year which has been super exciting.
In terms of confidence, it’s always fluctuating, so I’m not sure if it’s grown that significantly. Introversion sure is persistent! I do know, however, that I don’t get as nervous presenting my work and receiving critique as I used to. In fact, I’m quite open to them now.
Was there someone (or something) that inspired you to pick design as a career path?
I’d have to say the main inspiration was my older sister. Sometimes, I think I might not have ever taken up design if it wasn’t for her. When I was roughly 12-years-old – back when I didn’t even know graphic design was a thing – I would watch her work on her high school design project and feel enamoured, instantly knowing that that was something I wanted to do. Sure enough, it became my favourite subject in school. She didn’t end up pursuing design (she became a doctor instead), but the impact she had on me became everlasting.
What does your creative process look like?
Not many people know this about me, but I work quite sporadically. I have periods of time when I can do a deep dive and generate a lot of work in a short amount of time, but I also have periods of stagnancy. In any case, I’m an intuitive worker; I don’t tend to plan or sketch things out – except for when I’m designing type – because I have a hard time visualising ideas in my head and translating them onto paper. Rather, my creative process involves going straight into the digital space, dropping all my assets onto the page, and seeing what I can make of them then and there. I then go through a series of rethinking, reordering, combining, adding, and subtracting based on self-critique and feedback from others, which inevitably leads to excessive nit-picking. This adds a lot of time to my workflow, but it’s unbearable when I spot a tiny error! I guess that’s just part of being a perfectionist.
It’s also worth noting that when I’m not creating, I become a sponge. I read, observe, ponder, analyse, and soak in anything and everything there is about my project, and I’m constantly inspired by other designers and their work. And when I apply all that research in my work, there’s something incredibly rewarding about seeing them manifest as something with substance, value, and impact. Research is such an integral part of my process – some of my best work wouldn’t exist without it!
Which piece in your portfolio are you most proud of and why?
There are a few that I’m proud of, such as my graduating project and a typeface design I did for mental health called Dot Dot Dot. However, one project I absolutely love is Periphery, an experimental film festival I created back in early 2020. The main bulk of the project was done in the midst of our very first lockdown, and I remember almost having a mental breakdown because I couldn’t figure out how I wanted it to look until two weeks before the deadline. But when it finally took shape, I was, and still am, really pleased with all of its components: the unique imagery I developed, the suite of design collateral, and the overall visual identity.
What’s next for you?
At the moment, I’m hoping to finally get started on a personal project that’s been ruminating in the back of my mind for the past year and a half. This ‘in-between’ stage that I’m in right now seems like the perfect time to test the waters and see what might come of it. But, as with any project, I can’t say for sure how it’s going to end up looking or how long it will take.
When it comes to my career, however, only time will tell! I’m not one to look too far into the future or have a ‘five-year plan’ because things change and people change. Instead, I tend to have a ‘go with the flow’ mindset, so I’m open to whatever happens next.
How can people get in touch or see more of your work?
Flick me an email at email@example.com and I’ll probably reply within a day or two. Otherwise, feel free to check out my web portfolio at ashleighsun.work and on Instagram @ashleigh.design, but I must admit I haven’t paid them much attention lately.